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‘Last Chance High’ : Education: School on Skid Row is one of 43 in L.A. district giving troubled youths special attention in hopes they will turn their lives around.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its spotless halls and shaded, grassy lawns, Metropolitan High School looks like an elite, private academy.

Indeed, with just 15 students in a class, and teachers and counselors ready to drop their work on a moment’s notice to focus on a student, the academic and personal attention that Metro teen-agers receive would cost thousands of dollars a year at a private school. But Metro’s students are not Ivy League-bound prep schoolers.

A public school in the heart of Skid Row, Metro is, in the words of one local police officer, “Last Chance High.”

One of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 43 continuation schools, Metro draws its students from gang members, drug users and chronic truants barred from the district’s conventional high schools.

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To keep them in school, Metro offers a study environment more nurturing and comfortable--not to mention attractive--than the overcrowded campuses that most of them left behind.

“This is the best school,” said Jenniffer Samayoa, 17, who was asked to leave Manual Arts high school for excessive fighting. “It’s clean and our teachers and counselors really care about us. I have changed so much since I’ve been here.”

The campus--with 140 students, the system’s largest continuation high school--reflects the best of the city’s continuation system. Classes are structured around individual student-teacher contracts rather than a standardized, set-in-stone lesson plan; pupils set their own deadlines; instructors return poor assignments as many times as necessary until they’re done right.

On average, classes contain fewer than half the students of those in regular city high schools. Students and teachers insist such manageable numbers make all the difference.

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“If students aren’t working at a big school,” said Metro art teacher Milton Loupe, “they can hide behind other students, not do the work and just get by until it’s over. Here, it’s just too small to hide.”

Added English teacher Betty Baker: “Accountability is the key. You can’t just show up here.”

Once they do arrive, many Metro students crack down for the first time, determined to “get that paper"--a high school diploma and possibly a move to trade school, college and beyond.

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Metro is for some the last stop on the public school circuit; others had the choice of Metro or a youth detention center. Students often learned hard lessons that prompted them to straighten up.

Samayoa, a conservatively dressed young woman with an easy smile, talked regretfully about “my wild days when I was a kid. You should have seen the things I did.”

Heriberto Garcia was kicked out of Jefferson High when he got caught in a campus drug sting. “It was either here or Juvenile Hall for me,” said the 18-year-old. If not at Metro, “I’d be out selling rock cocaine like I used to.”

Last year, 21 of Metro’s 25 seniors graduated, Principal Shirley Miller said. The other four are just a few credits away from graduation, she said.

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“I wouldn’t have graduated if I hadn’t gone there, no way,” said Tomas Caban, a former troublemaker at Jefferson High, who finished in July and is enrolled in Los Angeles Trade Tech College.

But Metro doesn’t always produce academic miracles. Its students score lower on standardized tests than three-quarters of the district’s pupils, district statistics show. Only one in four enrollees graduates, a dropout rate nearly six times the district average.

But even those students who leave before graduation can take with them some of the skills they need to get jobs. As part of Metro’s curriculum, students learn such high-tech skills as computer spread-sheet generation, and vocational standbys such as carpet and linoleum installation.

Most important, Metro provides a detour from the criminal justice system, said head counselor Nancy DePaolo.

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Substitute teacher Wanda Lee Evans said she would rather be assigned to Metro than a conventional high school because the small classes mean fewer behavioral problems and less time spent on discipline.

The campus itself, on Central Avenue at Seventh Street just south of Downtown, symbolizes hope in the midst of adversity.

The roar of buses from the Greyhound station next door sometimes interrupts class discussions, and trash-strewn streets bring transients, drug dealers and prostitutes near the campus’ edge.

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Even so, Metro’s lawns and flower gardens are manicured and there is not a trace of graffiti: Miller enforces a gang neutrality policy through hawklike supervision and the threat of expulsion.

This watchfulness translates into abundant attention from a school staff deeply devoted to students. Administrators and teachers, even the substitutes, know each student’s background and problems intimately.

“This job is like parenting, and the school is like an extension of our families,” said counselor DePaolo. “We decide things [for each student] based on what we would want for our own children.”

The optimistic atmosphere is infectious, some students said.

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One young woman, in her third year at Metro, has seen stonily silent, hardened youngsters arrive at the school determined not to participate in class discussions. “They come from big schools, and they just look at us [participating] in class like we’re crazy,” said Elizabeth Ruvalcaba, 19. “But, it’s so funny, because pretty soon they start giving in and changing. They start to say, ‘Why should I feel embarrassed just for talking in class?’ ”

When Richard Hassan fell behind in his classes at Los Angeles High School and was asked to leave, he thought he’d probably drop out. But Metro hooked him.

“You can come here every day and still end up in jail or in trouble afterward,” he said. “The thing that saves us is changing our attitudes. I’m trying to make my life a total positive.”

For Ruvalcaba, a senior, concerned support from Metro staffers was the shift she needed to change her life.

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When the onetime chronic truant showed her parents her first Metro report card, full of A’s and B’s, her father accused her of bribing a teacher to falsify the document. Her mother laughed with derision. She shrugged them off, she said.

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Youngsters such as Ruvalcaba tell their friends and relatives about the place that has helped change them. More than once, troubled students have asked to leave their assigned high schools to transfer to Metro.

Although flunking out of Metro is nearly impossible--students must redo poor assignments again and again, until done right--that doesn’t mean an easy ride for students.

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There are no sports teams, no evening dances and no prom. Students are barred by locked gates and a full-time security guard from leaving campus for lunch, and they must adhere to a rigid dress code that prohibits oversized clothing, bandannas or lettered belt buckles--gang-related attire, administrators say.

The simplest details are regulated to avoid situations that often lead to conflict: Bathrooms are kept under lock and key, and the metal lockers that line school corridors are off-limits. Drugs and weapons find their way to a school when there’s a place to put them, students said.

Although Miller insists there is little or no violence at Metro, more than one student confessed to bringing a gun to school at some point in the past. Caban, the recent graduate, brought his mini-.380 gun to school for a few weeks, he said, until he felt safe on campus and sold it.

Even so, he supports the school’s strict rules. What he missed out on at Metro, he said, was minor compared to what he gained. “Getting class rings and pictures and all that stuff is just a distraction from the real business of school,” Caban said.

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